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HOME : African & Tribal Art : African Collection/ HK : Polychrome Yoruba Gelede Mask
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Polychrome Yoruba Gelede Mask - LSO.233
Origin: Nigeria
Circa: 1900 AD to 1930 AD
Dimensions: 10" (25.4cm) high
Collection: African
Style: Yoruba


Additional Information: Hong Kong

Location: Great Britain
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Description
This imaginative and charming mask was carved and used by the Yoruba people of Central Nigeria. Used in masquerade performances in an effort to placate evil spirits, it is an integral part of Yoruban magical and religious life. The Yoruba are a Central Nigerian tribal group, originally descended from a Hausa migration from the northeast in about 900 AD. The Yoruba have an exceptionally rich and diverse mythology, history and religion. Themes from all of these can be found carved on secular objects, as well as on the paraphernalia used to worship and otherwise derive favour from the spiritual world. The Gelede tradition is the male way of averting disaster emanating from the disenchanted spirits of their wives and other female relations. The Yoruba believe that, unless appeased, female spirits transform into malevolent forces (Aje) that can wreak social, economic and spiritual havoc upon the villages in which they live. In order to avoid this, they regularly hold festivals at which the spirits are appeased through a ceremony of dance and ritual activity. The spirits will then work for the benefit of the tribe. In so doing, the masks also embody the society’s cohesion, as they act to bring together the community into focused social activities that promote a sense of belonging that was of extreme importance in feudal African states. It should be noted that the Baga tribe have a similar belief, in which the consequence of feminine displeasure is failure of the rice harvest; it is for this reason that they developed the Nimba headdress and associated dance.

Each village and area had distinctive patterns of Gelede masks that reflect some facet of their social organisation or mythology. The significance of certain traits may not be apparent to anyone not born in the village or area – such as poking fun at, or lampooning, prominent local personages. In general terms, however, Yoruba Gelede masks are readily recognisable from other forms (notably the Egungun masks), although the range of variability in their superstructures can be bewildering. Despite its complexity, it is monoxylous (i.e. carved from one piece of wood), and carved into a zoomorphic form, but with certain humanoid characteristics.

The face has slanted almond eyes with drilled pupils and raised rims, at either side of a flattened, somewhat crooked nose and a small mouth. The expression thus attained is watchful and suspicious. The face is carved to look as if it is projecting out from under a hood-like piece of headgear, with a black stripe in the sagittal plane (i.e. front to back). Attached partly to this and partly to the headwear (or perhaps projecting out from underneath it) are two enormous black-and- white striped forward-pointing ears. The main ground of the face is painted in white pigment, with raised parts showing through as dark patches. The cowl (that sat upon the forehead of the wearer) is in dark paint; unusually, it is not drilled to take the cloth costume that usually went with such masks, implying that it may not have been used and may instead have been intended for display in a domestic or central locale. The wear to the face and ears, however, imply a certain age and degree of usage.

The significance of the detailing is not possible to interpret due to the lack of contextual information. In general terms, however, some guesses may be made. Firstly, the non-realistic nature of the mask indicates that it is not intended to represent a specific person, and is instead probably representative of a spirit whose appeasement is the aim of Gelede ceremonies. The general form is zoomorphic, so perhaps there is some connection with the “bush” as a source of magical properties, as evidenced in the masks of other tribes such as the Mossi. The age of the mask would seem to be considerable, judging from the fact that organic pigments were used rather than the garish paints that were usually used on tribal art in the wake of European colonialism. This is a sensitively-carved and attractive work. - (LSO.233)

 

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